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In Defense of Philosophy

Can Science Now Answer the Most Essential of Philosophical Questions?


Monday, May 7, 2012

Philosophy has come under attack by various scientists in recent years, generally because, well, they just don’t get it. This little essay is my attempt to show why.

Lawrence Krauss, an American physicist at Arizona State University and author of a number of books, stated recently that “philosophy hasn’t progressed in two thousand years.” He clarified in an Atlantic Monthly interview that he was being purposefully provocative in this statement, but this is a clear example of those scientists who just don’t get it. Krauss’s point was that whereas science progresses through the creation of hypotheses, experiments, and falsification, philosophy amounts to little more than word games that don’t really go anywhere.

Tam Hunt

This is unfortunately a rather common attitude among working scientists and even among laypeople. Richard Dawkins, the well-known British evolutionary biologist and author of numerous popular books on evolution, wrote the afterword for Krauss’s book A Universe from Nothing. Dawkins likens Krauss’s book to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in terms of its potential importance in de-throning supernatural views of the world in favor of purely naturalistic explanations.

The bottom line is that the boundaries between philosophy and science are rather arbitrary and arguably even illusory. There is, perhaps, a continuum of changes in methodology that separates the two.

The sine qua non of a good scientific theory is falsifiability, at least in Karl Popper’s school of thought, which is prevalent in science today, whether he is acknowledged or not. Falsifiability means that a hypothesis or theory can be tested and, if the test is failed, this can result in potentially falsifying (rejecting) the hypothesis or theory at issue.

Philosophy, however, traditionally relies on logical consistency and adequacy to the facts. This latter criterion means that inconvenient facts shouldn’t be ignored. This is a weaker version of falsifiability.

What is truly ironic, however, is that Popper himself was a philosopher, primarily a philosopher of science. He has had, contrary to the statements of Krauss and other anti-philosophers, a huge influence on how science is actually done. All debates about scientific method, about how science is and should be done, fall squarely within the rubric of the “philosophy of science.” For any working scientist to be ignorant of the philosophy of science, of the work of Popper, Lakatos, Kuhn, Feyerabend, and others, is to be a bad scientist, in my view.

In fact, Krauss and Dawkins are both bedfellows with the equally well-known philosopher Daniel Dennett, at Tufts University. Is Dennett’s book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, which explains and adds to the literature on the theory of evolution, properly categorized as biology or philosophy? It’s clearly both. Is Dennett’s most well-known book, Consciousness Explained, cognitive science or philosophy? It’s both, but this book has had a very substantial impact in neuroscience, cognitive science, and the philosophy of mind. Is Dennett, a philosopher, uninfluential vis a vis scientists? Clearly not.

David Albert, a philosopher of science, recently reviewed Krauss’s book in the New York Times and found it wanting in many ways. Krauss’s basic claim is that physics can now answer even the most profound of philosophical/religious questions: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why does anything exist at all? Krauss’s answer: the laws of physics just are, and everything else, including our entire universe, flows from that.

Albert responds to Krauss’s ideas:

Where, for starters, are the laws of quantum mechanics themselves supposed to have come from? Krauss is more or less upfront, as it turns out, about not having a clue about that. He acknowledges (albeit in a parenthesis, and just a few pages before the end of the book) that everything he has been talking about simply takes the basic principles of quantum mechanics for granted. “I have no idea if this notion can be usefully dispensed with,” he writes, “or at least I don’t know of any productive work in this regard.” And what if he did know of some productive work in that regard? What if he were in a position to announce, for instance, that the truth of the quantum-mechanical laws can be traced back to the fact that the world has some other, deeper property X? Wouldn’t we still be in a position to ask why X rather than Y? And is there a last such question? Is there some point at which the possibility of asking any further such questions somehow definitively comes to an end? How would that work? What would that be like?

Krauss, in his rebuttal in an Atlantic Monthly interview, refers to Albert as a “moronic philosopher.” (Dawkins has indulged in similarly infelicitous public language on more than one occasion). The moron Krauss refers to is a professor of philosophy at Columbia University who happens to hold a Ph.D. in theoretical physics. Albert also runs the M.A. program in the philosophy of physics at Columbia University. I am not suggesting that Albert’s views should simply be taken on authority; rather, I’m suggesting that perhaps Krauss should look at himself a little harder for calling such a figure a “moronic philosopher.”

More to the point, what Krauss fails to point out is that there is still a lot of room for philosophy, spirituality, religion, or science to provide answers to the most basic of questions – like “Why is there something rather than nothing?” (I’ve provided some suggestions here and here.) Science has not answered this question, as Krauss suggests in his book it has, and it probably never will because science is supposed to rest on falsifiability. How could a theory about why there is something rather than nothing be tested, let alone be falsified? It seems clear that such a theory couldn’t be either tested or falsified because the universe we’re in does indeed exist, and we have no way of examining non-existence…

Brute facts are a necessary evil: There is a level of explanation at which “brute facts” rear their ugly heads. We simply have to accept certain brute facts as the basis of our preferred system, just as we have to accept Euclid’s axioms if we are to use his system of geometry. We can argue about what brute facts are necessary, and that is exactly where philosophy or theology should take over from science. Krauss is arguing that the laws of physics as we know them are the brute facts we should accept as the “nothing” out of which our universe arises. But he’s not arguing this explicitly; rather, he seems to mock the suggestion that some people may prefer to go a bit deeper and ask why do the particular laws we observe around us exist. We may never know the answer to this or similarly deep questions, but it is not irrational to speculate about answers. And nor should it be discouraged.

Turning to Dawkins’s own book tackling some similar issues, The God Delusion, we find equally unconvincing arguments. To be sure, Dawkins makes many good and valuable arguments. I agree with him that organized religion’s answers to the big questions are increasingly failing in today’s world. And I certainly agree that behaving ethically is a matter quite independent of one’s views about the Creator. However, Dawkins’s arguments are generally fairly sophomoric in that they fail to engage any of the more rigorous philosophies/spiritualities that adhere to both reason and faith. I’m rather partial to Whitehead’s process philosophy, which is just one such approach that is rigorous and compatible with modern science – but also finds room for God (not necessarily as a conscious being, but perhaps even that).

Dawkins’s key point is that the traditional omnipotent and omniscient Creator God of Christianity conflicts in numerous ways with modern science. And on this I agree. But that traditional notion of God is not the only notion out there. There are many alternative concepts of a higher intelligence or a higher power that rational people can subscribe to. I explore some of these ideas in my in-progress documentary.

Dawkins and Krauss are fairly described as “fundamentalist scientismists,” as in “scientism.” Scientism, like most isms, takes a single idea too far, to the point where it becomes dogmatic and closes one off to other ideas. Dawkins and Krauss are to MSNBC as Christian fundamentalists and Creationists are to Fox News. They’re all way too dogmatic and extreme.

Krauss and Dawkins are bad philosophers: At the end of the day, what Krauss, Dawkins, and other scientists like them who criticize philosophy, are doing is itself philosophy – but it’s just very bad philosophy. The claim, for example, that science can answer the question “Why is there something rather than nothing,” is itself obviously unfalsifiable. So it would seem that Krauss’s book falls under the rubric of philosophy, not science.

Similarly with Dawkins’s book, which claims that science has demonstrated that God very likely does not exist. How could this theory be falsified? If we could demonstrate that God does indeed exist, his theory could be falsified, but as we’ve seen from a few thousand years of debate no such demonstration is forthcoming.

The basic rules of philosophy are logical coherence and adequacy to the facts. Krauss and Dawkins attempt philosophy, but they break both of these rules in their books. They fail in being logically coherent because they argue against the importance of philosophy while actually engaging in philosophy.

And their ideas are not adequate to the facts because they fail to recognize that many questions relevant to human experience cannot be examined from a strictly scientific point of view, at least not the kind of science that focuses on falsifiability. (I’ve suggested, following Ken Wilber, that a single “deep science,” can encompass science and spirituality, but this is not a path Krauss or Dawkins choose to tread.)

There is also an unfortunately common thread in this kind of writing: an obvious lack of any personal deep spiritual experiences that prompt reflection or hesitation at embracing a purely reductionist approach to nature. I can’t help but feel, in reading Krauss, Dawkins, Dennett, etc., that these gentlemen would benefit greatly from a week-long silent meditation retreat or some similarly profound experience.

I’ll end with the conclusion of Albert’s review of Krauss’s book:

When I was growing up, where I was growing up, there was a critique of religion according to which religion was cruel, and a lie, and a mechanism of enslavement, and something full of loathing and contempt for everything essentially human. Maybe that was true and maybe it wasn’t, but it had to do with important things — it had to do, that is, with history, and with suffering, and with the hope of a better world — and it seems like a pity, and more than a pity, and worse than a pity, with all that in the back of one’s head, to think that all that gets offered to us now, by guys like these, in books like this, is the pale, small, silly, nerdy accusation that religion is, I don’t know, dumb.

Amen.

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Tam Hunt is a lawyer and philosopher who lives in Santa Barbara.